Socratic meditation


After a post in Donald Robertson’s facebook group on meditation sucked me into a comment thread, I noted a statement by my friend Yannos that piqued my interest.  In discussing the topic, I had mentioned that there’s no account of sitting or breathing meditation in the Stoic corpus, like we see in Buddhism, for example.  Yannos commented something like, “No, they were standing.”  I had not heard anything like this before.

In speaking with him privately, he gave me some reading homework to do.  In Plato’s Symposium there are two accounts of instances in which Socrates in engaged in a behavior which seems to be a meditation or a trance of some sort, and in both he’s standing still.  It’s also clear that he’s not praying, as in the one account he prays afterwards.  I tend to go to Xenophon for my Socrates-reading, and (perhaps embarrassingly) haven’t read too much of Plato.

Time to correct that, it seems.

The two passages in question are: 174d175c and 220c-d.  I will briefly paraphrase them here.

Plat. Sym. 174d175c

Socrates invites his friend Aristodemus to a dinner party which is hosted by Agathon.  Along the way, Socrates begins to lag behind, and he waves his friend onward.  Upon arriving to the house, he takes up a post at the neighbor’s porch, and stands meditating.  Aristodemus enters the house, and Agathon asks where Socrates is, and sends a servant to collect the man.  When asked by the servant to come in, he refuses.   When the servant reports the happening, Agathon orders him to continue to pester Socrates until he comes in, at which point Aristodemus intervenes and asks the host to let Socrates be, as this is a habit of his which he does frequently, regardless of time and place; and that he will be along shortly.  Agathon agrees to do this.  A short time later, proving Aristodemus correct, Socrates enters.  The mark of wisdom is clearly visible to Agathon, who asks Socrates to share it with him.  Socrates declines, and says that if such a thing were possible, to shift wisdom from one to another as a wick will move a liquid, he would.  But alas, it is not so.

Two things are worthy of note here, the first is that in this state, at least in the beginning, Socrates can and does interact with others.  He speaks to Aristodemus and to the servant of Agathon.  The second being that this occured frequently enough for others to know of it as a habit of his.  It is a practice or exercise which Socrates engages in often.

Plat. Sym. 220c

Alcibiades tells the dinner guests of another such time Socrates stood, but this was not short venture as the one of early this evening.  At Potidaea, in the Peloponnesian War, Socrates “joined his thoughts with himself” (συνεννοήσας), and stood still from morning, through lunch and the evening, and all through the night until the next morning.  Alcibiades states that we would not give up, suggesting a commitment to the process despite outside pressures.  It was such a sight, that others brought their bedrolls outside to watch.  In the morning, he greeted the sun with prayers for the new day.

In this instance, Socrates stood for 24 hours in this practice.  Most translations will say that Socrates was “thinking over some problem/issue,” but Yannos showed me that the word in question is συνεννοήσας, “συν+ ἐν + νοέω, from νοῦς” so I’ve used ‘joined his thoughts with himself.’  For folks interested, the other Greek words in question to discuss this activity in Plato are: συννενοέω, σκοπέω, φροντίζω τι, and προσέχω τὸν νοῦν.  As Yannos noted, “All this is done while standing and away from everybody else (ἀναχωρήσας).”

From the words above, we can look at some English words which help us see what Socrates is doing inside, he’s turning his thoughts inward, examining himself, contemplating, inspecting, looking out for something, etc.  His practice involves him standing, sometime shortly, other times for a very long time, and engaging in this work.  He stands away, so it’s personal, but he does it wherever he happens to be, so it’s not private, and it is without concern for time or the events of others, so it is not a public display. I hope this delimits the practice somewhat.  Additional, this Greek Word Study Tool is useful as you can look up words in their full, inflected form without knowing the nominative/dictionary form.

In the beginning, at least, Socrates can and does speak to others. Later he seems to ignore other people, but it’s unclear to me whether he cannot, or simply does not do so. In the Alcibiades passage, his commitment to seeing the practice through is evident. Alcibiades states that Socrates would not give up, and he stood there contemplating for a day and a night. Quite a mental and physical feat.

Neither passage tells us what Socrates has gained from the practice, we only see it through the eyes of others like the three mentioned before. I have not found much scholarly discussion on this topic. This paper, which is partially on topic for us and partially off, states that the event is a trance.  I’m not convinced this is the case.  It seems to me to be a meditative and contemplative exercise, but I could be misconstruing what’s meant by trance as the author uses it.  Also, in my preliminary readings, I came across a Google-scan of an old book which I cannot now find again, where the author laments that this passages is an example of many scholars cramming their own ideas into ancient texts, eisegisis (a word Chris Fisher recently taught me).  This book notes two sources, one who uses this passage to state that this is evidence Socrates was a Pythagorean mystic, and another who uses it to claim that Socrates was figure of Science (with a capital S, clearly).  It’s worth noting that this is a real and present risk in the kind of work we’re engaged in here, so the reminder is timely and helpful.

HadotIt does seem fair to me that this practice can be classed as a “spiritual exercise” as Hadot would label it, and that it could be a valid practice for contemporary Stoics of any stripe.  For me, this sort of evidence, while a bit thin, is an interesting line of investigation which I prefer to porting over a practice from some other school or religion.  I will be making use of it in the coming weeks and months, and will report back any findings of note.

Normally, I would detail a plan or instructions for others. But as I’m writing this before engaging in a long-term experiment with the practice, I think that such a thing will be a future post after some experimenting is done.  So, I apologize for the lack, mea culpa.  If you decided to add this Socratic Meditation to your practice of Stoicism, please report back in the comments.

Socrates… and kids?


I’ve been doing some reading on Socrates lately, and so the google algorithms decided I’d be interested in this video.  This is not an aspect of Socrates I’m very familiar with, and I’ve not yet read any Montaigne.  You may also find it interesting.

Cosmopolitanism is discussed, there’s a note of “shamelessness,” and maybe oikeiôsis too.

SLRP: XC. On The Part Played By Philosophy (Part 1: 1-6)



“[The Gods] have given the knowledge thereof to none, but the faculty of acquiring it they have given to all”

It’s sentiments such as this which highlight the distinction between the revealed faith of many religious, and the rational discovery in a religious philosophy such as Stoicism.


Posidonius holds that the government was under the jurisdiction of the wise. They kept their hands under control, and protected the weaker from the stronger. They gave advice, both to do and not to do; they showed what was useful and what was useless. Their forethought provided that their subjects should lack nothing; their bravery warded off dangers; their kindness enriched and adorned their subjects.

In the ancient texts, there is a sort of presumed rightness for the law. I wonder if this letter had been penned after the reign of Nero, if your perspective would be different.

Many of us live in countries where the laws are poorly written, arbitrarily interpreted, and randomly enforced. The Venn Diagrams of “that which is right” and “that which is legal” along with “that which is wrong” and “that which is illegal” doesn’t look like you might think it does.

Philosophy offers a test for these things.

I see all points on the political compass in Stoicism, but I think libertarians slash classically liberal slash whatever the term du jour is, can benefit from it the most. Classical liberalism takes a minimalist stance on government, but it does not posit a system of ethics, it only circumscribes the negative space.

Libertarianism needs philosophy.


Part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Seneca’s Letters.

SLRP: LXXXIX. On The Parts Of Philosophy (Part 3: 16-23)



“I ought to be asking you ‘How long will these unending sins of yours go on?'” Do you really desire my remedies to stop before your vices?”

I quite like the suggestion that we ought to let words other than compliments reach us. I’ve been talking with a friend, and we’ve been discussing “the inner critic.” We’re not yet of one mind on this, but I’m enjoying and benefiting from the discussion.

Our topic there is that the inner critic is not always helpful. That we might choose to take the kind of conciliatory manner of the teacher with ourselves. It’s pretty unlikely that we would speak to a student as harshly as we do ourselves. We can see failure as progress in others, but do not apply this to ourselves. So, the inner critic’s ‘bedside manner,’ as it were, may need to be adjusted.

But his job doesn’t go away, as your letter reminds us, Seneca.  Indeed, the remedies must keep coming.
Thank you for the letter.


Part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Seneca’s Letters.

SLRP: LXXXIX. On The Parts Of Philosophy (Part 2: 9-15)



“The greatest authors, and the greatest number of authors, have maintained that there are three divisions of philosophy – moral, natural, and rational”

Read: ethics, physics, and logic.

The first keeps the soul in order; the second investigates the universe; the third works out the essential meanings of words, their combinations, and the proofs which keep falsehood from creeping in and displacing truth.

I quite like the examples that we see elsewhere, of the egg, garden, and animal.  It shows the interrelated nature of the parts, producing the whole.

Aristo of Chios remarked that the natural and the rational were not only superfluous, but were also contradictory

In this, I must disagree with Aristo.  While I do subscribe to this heterodox Stoic position that we can rightly do away with the preferred and dispreferred indifferent things, I think this takes us a step too far.  It may even put us back in the Cynic camp, or as was Aristo’s case, possibly a new school.

Ah ha!

Since, therefore, philosophy is threefold, let us first begin to set in order the moral side. It has been agreed that this should be divided into three parts. First, we have the speculative[17] part, which assigns to each thing its particular function and weighs the worth of each; it is highest in point of utility. For what is so indispensable as giving to everything its proper value? The second has to do with impulse,[18] the third with actions

Here we have something looking like Epictetus’ Three Disciplines/Τόποι. I haven’t seen that elsewhere in the Stoic literature, although it’s a firmly established part of the School since Epictetus’ time. I had assumed previously that it was a novel addition by him, but we here we see strains of it elsewhere and before Epictetus’ time as well.

I look forward to the rest of the letter.


Part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Seneca’s Letters.

SLRP: LXXXIX. On The Parts Of Philosophy (Part 1: 1-8)



“I shall therefore comply with your demand, and shall divide philosophy into parts, but not into scraps. For it is useful that philosophy should be divided, but not chopped into bits.”

I foresee some umbrage to be taken with some moderns who are ready to toss out even the learning of Stoic physics. As a gestalt system, it seems self-evident to me that one would learn the whole thing, even if one later decided parts were incorrect. Some moderns do not take this stance, however, and see no use in learning something which science disagrees with.

“Certain persons have defined wisdom as the knowledge of things divine and things human.”

A concise definition, to be sure.  Yet I’m not sure it’s overly helpful at first glance.  Upon a more in depth reading, we can see it reflected in the motto, “Live in accordance with the nature of things,” and with a hearty dose of Stoic teachings, we have something to work with, I think.

Certain of our school, however, although philosophy meant to them “the study of virtue,” and though virtue was the object sought and philosophy the seeker, have maintained nevertheless that the two cannot be sundered. For philosophy cannot exist without virtue, nor virtue without philosophy.

This seems to have some more meat on it, for the newcomer.  I look forward to the rest of the discussion, now that we have some definitions to share and upon which to build the rest.


Part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Seneca’s Letters.

ἐπιμέλεια ἑαυτὸν


There’s been a trend with many some modern Stoic writers, and with commenters and various blogs and groups, that the main focus of ancient philosophy, specifically of Stoicism, can be shifted from virtue and wisdom, to Justice. I’ve even seen it explicitly stated that we can get rid of the other three cardinal virtues and focus solely on Justice.

This is a strange perspective, one couched in the typical morality of the modern world, and I think that you’ll see that it is not based in the Stoic school. If we look at Stoic thought and exercises we will see that we have two tools for acting justly in the world: οἰκείωσις, and using social roles as a way to determine appropriate actions.

However, we have many exercises, tools, and prescriptions for, as Hadot calls them, spiritual exercises. All of these amount to ἐπιμέλεια ἑαυτὸν, or as Foucault translates as “care of the self.” This disparity alone should tell us that the place of importance is shifted in one direction.  Indeed, those outward actions, of roles/duties are merely descriptors of things the Sage does.  It’s just a nice benefit to virtue, not the end of it.

It should be a non-controversial statement, that Stoics are more concerned with the intent of the thing, then the consequences of a thing. The Dichotomy of Control clearly is a tool allowing us, nay, mandating us to pick and choose between what is up to us and what is not up to us. The consequences of our actions in a cosmos which is rigorously, mechanistically, causally controlled and Providentially ordered is clearly not up to us. The internal project, the intent, the work of the προαίρεσις is. Our social roles are not goods in and of themselves. Our duties are not goods. They are expressions of the good which is within, of virtue. Stoic ethics/morality is self-centered. By this, I mean focused on the self. From Socrates, through the Cynics, to the Stoics and beyond the focus has been on the inward turning of the individual.

Epictetus orders us to “turn back to yourselves” (ἐπιστρέψατε αὐτοὶ) (Disc. III.23.39). Marcus reminds himself to “turn your thoughts on yourself”(εἰς ἑαυτὸν ἐπιστρέφου) (Meditations IX.42).  We see this sort of language over and over again in the Stoic canon.

Rather, then seeing Stoicism as one more branding for popular social action or someone’s political agenda; we should look at it, as the Ancients did.  We should see it as an order for care of the self: to work on ourselves, to secure individual virtue. This trend has existed throughout Western Civilization, even though it is almost always subsumed by collectivist structures. For example, we see it in Christianity, we have both the good works mandate, and the admonition to remove the plank from our own eyes, before touching the speck in our neighbors. So too do we see Stoicism. The commandment of γνῶθι σεαυτόν (know thyself), is sometimes reorganized as ‘recognize thy self,’ (Scalenghe) and is a reminder to realign ourselves to the rational divinity of the soul. We are instructed to seek personal virtue and through that we benefit others. So while we bring people one Circle closer in Hierocles’ ordering of the cosmos, we are still ever working on ourselves and to better ourselves.

The call of ancient philosophy is not one of  “come as you are,”  but to recognize your own nature, change what needs to be changed about you, and strive towards the human excellence that you were formed by nature to be worthy of possessing.  The cost may be high, however.  It may be our current way of life, our livelihood, our beliefs, and more besides.  This facet is entirely lost in modern, academic philosophy where the only thing required to learn a specific set of patterns to get closer to truth.  The Ancients require that you change, not merely learn.  The call, then, of the Stoics is while we have duties and obligation in the world polis, the primary focus is on progressing toward virtue. It’s important not to lose sight of that amidst worldly concerns.

Stoicism tells us to work on ourselves to make a difference in our community. Rather than giving the community a partisan, a voter, or one more outraged and offended voice, it is within our power to give them a good person, a good family member, a good citizen.

Your virtue is the best thing you can do for your community.